‘We can’t go on like this’ | Astrid Vella

The Planning Authority is approving more development projects than ever before – especially in Gozo. But Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar co-ordinator ASTRID VELLA argues that developers have now ‘crossed a line’; and that people will no longer put up with the loss of their townscapes on such a massive scale

Astrid Vella (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Astrid Vella (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

In a recent press release, environmental NGOs - including FAA – raised the alarm over a 300% increase in construction and development in Gozo: arguing that this “is the result of the present climate where developers are emboldened by the ‘elasticisation of planning policies’.” Can you elaborate on that? How have Malta’s planning policies been manipulated, to permit development on such a large scale?

There are two aspects that are currently compounding the situation. On the one hand, there is the sheer number and size of permits that are now being churned out on an unprecedented scale; and on the other, there is the cumulative impact of all this construction on the environment, and our overall quality of life.

Let’s start with the numbers. Basically, there has been a huge increase in the number of permits – not just in Gozo; though it has been more pronounced there - due to the speculative momentum fuelled by this government. And this is utterly unsustainable.

When you come to a point when even the Chamber of Architects itself is publicly declaring that ‘we cannot go on like this’… you know that the situation is extremely serious. Here we have the prime body, that stands to gain from the phenomenon, saying: ’Whoah!  We need to put the brakes on…’ That’s how serious the situation is.

The sheer quantity of development permits that are being issued by the Planning Authority is  now overwhelming our towns and villages. This, however, is having effects which go beyond just the uglification of our landscape. For instance: air pollution.

Would you believe me if I told you that the air in Malta is now more polluted than Manhattan? Well, it’s true… and there are statistics to prove it. Because our politicians – as always – have only ever taken the ‘bad bits’ to copy from other countries. It is a neo-colonialist mentality, to imitate foreign countries: without taking into consideration differences between the local and international context

And I say this, not because there is Labour government in power today. This actually started under the PN - back in 2012, the Chamber Architects – had declared that this sort of ‘copycat’ development was ‘not suited to Malta’. It doesn’t take into account our culture… nor our infrastructure.

At the same time, former Labour minister Charles Buhagiar – then in opposition – had declared that we have ‘neither the experience, nor the expertise’ for this sort of development. And this is very important: why are we seeing all these deaths and injuries on construction sites, spiralling out of control? Not to mention the collapse of houses, and the deaths of residents…

Obviously, it is because we just don’t have the necessary expertise for the type of development we are now permitting.

In fact, you also argued that many of these new developments “violate urban planning regulations and zoning policies.” But let’s be honest: this is hardly a new phenomenon. FAA has in fact been complaining about abusive development for years, if not decades. What makes today’s situation so particularly urgent?

Again: part of the answer has to do with the sheer number of permits being issued today, which is far higher than ever before; and also more intrusive, with policies being broken to allow large hotels in residential side-streets in Gzira, Sliema, St Julian’s and other towns. Not to mention all the pavements and promenades – public property – being taken over by cafes and kiosks. And as our press release stated, Gozitan development applications alone – that is to say, not even counting the situation in Malta - have almost doubled in the past four years: increasing from 787 in 2016 to 1,314 in 2020.

And this brings me back to the figures. Mad as we were, at [former PA board member] Elizabeth Ellul, for approving so many ODZ projects in er time… her replacement is actually approving three times as may permits which had been original recommended for refusal: even when those negative refusals bear the full weight of the Environment and Resources Authority and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.

What many people are not aware of is that, while public attention is focused on the main PA Board – which decides on all the major projects – it is actually the EPC that quietly approves about 95% of all permits. It is only a handful of decisions that actually reache the PA Board. The vast majority sneak their way through the EPC.

And while NGOs do the best job they can to keep an eye on those permit decisions…the reality is that civil society lacks the resources, funding and staff to carry out such a major job. This is why there are now so many different NGOs: each specialising in their own particular area, and trying to divide the work among themselves.

So even if it is not a ‘new’ phenomenon… it is certainly getting a lot worse today both in terms of numbers and gravity. We have even reached the point that Malta’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites are being jeopardised by encroaching development, which UNESCO rates as a factor in undermining their value World Heritage status.

Views and from Valletta, Ġgantija, Manoel Island and Mdina (the last two being Tentative World Heritage Sites) are all threatened by large developments. In the case of Manoel Island, the cavalier attitude towards our world heritage was encapsulated in the EIA coordinator’s claim that “Valletta’s bastions cannot be seen from the Gzira seafront”!

The good news, however, is that while the situation is deteriorating, there is also more awareness – and resistance - than ever before.

Much of this resistance, however, comes from individual NGOs such as FAA: but there is also widespread perception that the various environmentalist lobbies tend to be ‘fragmented’. How true is that, of today’s situation? And if the environmentalist lobby is more or less the only thing standing in developers’ way – and you yourself are admitting that it is under-staffed and under-resourced – doesn’t that also mean that civil society is too powerless to make any difference at all?

Yes, I confirm that this perception you mention is totally outdated. It was already changing 15 years ago; even the fact that most of our press releases now go out in unison, is proof that we are now closer to each other than ever before.

So if the perception still persists today, it is mainly because it is being fuelled by the ‘divide and rule’ policies of the powers that be. And also because, unfortunately, certain journalists keep parroting it. But it is ultimately a fallacy, in this day and age.

As for that fatalistic view, that ‘nothing can be done’… unfortunately, people do have this perception, too.  But again, it is misplaced. And if there is any one single event that proves this, it was the fact that FAA managed to bring down the Manoel Island Environmental Impact Assessment: having it completely annulled at appeals stage.

That was a total David and Goliath battle in which a tiny NGO, with no resources to speak of, managed to stop the giant in its tracks. Not forever, perhaps; but it was a major victory, which brought about significant changes to MIDI’s plans.

And there were other victories, too: the massive project proposed for the former Trade Fair grounds in Naxxar, was stopped altogether… by joint action between the local council and civil society. And this is another reason why I wouldn’t say the battle has been ‘lost’; quite the contrary, in fact.

There has been a major change in climate recently, particularly when it comes to local councils. Many of them are now turning to NGOs in their own struggles against over-development in their localities. And many are working independently, too.

At this point, I have to mention the historic declaration, made by all Gozo’s mayors, at a meeting with the Environment Ministry two weeks ago. That was truly ground-breaking and shows that local councils are now realising that the residents in their localities just can’t take it anymore. Most importantly, they are putting aside their political differences to take a collective stand in favour of the common good.

On its own, this already shows that things are changing. Obviously, however, they are not changing fast enough.

And this is not only because NGOs are under-resourced; you also have to look at what we’re up against.

When Perit David Felice was president of the Camber of Architects [circa 2008], he had stood up during a conference, and addressed the Prime Minister directly, saying: ‘How can we ever talk about a level playing-field, when objectors – who have no resources, or power - are up against the full might of developers - who have all the money to employ the best architects and lawyers?”

And I’m afraid that this is truer of the situation now, than it was years ago. Because today, developers have not just ‘the best architects and lawyers’ at their disposal… but also the full weight, support and backing of today’s “pro-business government”. And as everyone knows, it is government that pulls the strings at the Planning Authority…

You say that ‘everyone knows’ – and certainly, that perception exists – but how much proof is there, really, to support your claim that the present situation “can only be explained by the widespread corruption of Malta’s planning system”? Is it really a simple as that?

Of course, we don’t have investigative powers: but let me put it this way. When you look into certain cases, and you see that every rule in the book has been broken; when you see abusive applications breezing through the planning process: even though the case officers would have adamantly recommended a refusal… and this happens time and time again - then yes: you are left with no alternative, but to conclude that that is indeed the case.

One other argument you raised – in the press release, but also earlier in this interview – is that there is a ‘change in the atmosphere’ at present. In Gozo in particular, you suggest that there has been a shift in public opinion regarding development. What makes you so certain of that?

Yes, I do sense that there has been a change: and it is mainly because the developers in Gozo have ‘overdone it’. They have crossed a line.

As long as the development in Gozo remained mostly of small-scale holiday apartments… there was an element of irritation, at the so-called ‘invasion of the Maltese’; but it didn’t go far beyond that.

Today, however, Gozitans are seeing individual projects like those of Qala, Zebbug, Xlendi, Marsalforn, and Nadur that – overwhelm the scale of their villages. When you have single projects that are large enough to overwhelm their entire localities…  let alone several of these enormous projects, all going up at once… that is why Gozitans are now really rebelling against this phenomenon. Because they can see, with their own eyes, that it is seriously impacting their quality of life.

For instance: Gozo was never associated with air-pollution in the past. On the contrary, people would go to Gozo specifically for the fresh air. Yet today, you can smell the air pollution the moment you get to within the outskirts of Victoria.

Their very way of life, and the things that Gozitans hold most dear, are being affected. Gozitans tend to identify themselves with their local landscape and surroundings, more than the Maltese do. And seeing all that landscape being destroyed, has a far, far greater impact on their psyche.

And that’s before considering that the ‘benefits’ of all this construction are not being shared out across the board. They are going directly into the pockets of only a very small ‘elite’.

So it’s a combination of many factors: but primarily, the problem is traffic; plus the impact on vistas and surroundings, that are very dear to the Gozitans’ heart.  This is why Gozo’s local councils have taken their historic stand; and also why even the Chamber of Architects, and other professional bodies, are now coming round to realise that – as they themselves declared - ‘we can’t go on like this’.